Unit 5: Beyond words

Overview of the unit

1.   The celebration of love

We begin this unit with a reading of the popular Afghani tale of romance entitled ‘Sheenree and Furhad’. The story provides us with an entry point into the exploration of the literature of romance in Muslim societies.

2.   The song of love

Tales and poems based on the theme of romance attempt to express a wide range of inner emotions connected with love. To deepen our appreciation of this form of literature, we examine a poem from Malaysia about an owl’s love for the moon.

3.   The poetry of devotion

The idea of love is also central to religious and mystical Literature. In this section, we explore the themes of separation and union through selected ginans from the Indian Ismaili tradition. The examples are used to illustrate the intimate relation that exists between a devotee and his Lord.

4.   The story of the quest

We conclude the unit by turning to the literature of the quest, as inspired by the mystical traditions of Islam. In this section, we study selected extracts from The Conference of the Birds by Farid al-Din Attar. Through this poem, we try to gain a greater understanding of the use of allegory and the theme of search in Muslim literature.
The celebration of love
Poets and writers throughout history have celebrated the experience of love. In Muslim societies, the literature of romance came to occupy an important place among other forms of writing. Here is a popular story about two lovers that is related by storytellers in the mountainous villages of Afghanistan.
Sheenree and Furhad
There was a brave man called Furhad who loved the princess Sheenree, but the princess did not love him. Furhad tried in vain to win Sheenree’s heart, but no one would dare betray the fact that a stone-cutter loved a lady of royal blood. Furhad, in despair, would go to the desert and the mountains, and spend whole days without food, playing on his flute sweet music in praise of Sheenree.
At last people thought to devise a plan to acquaint the princess of the stone-cutter’s love. She saw him once, and love which lived in his bosom also began to breathe in hers. But she dared not open her lips before her father, for how could a mean laborer aspire to win the hand of a princess?
It was not long, however before the king himself heard some rumor of this extraordinary exchange of sentiment. He was naturally indignant at the discovery. As he had no choice other than Sheenree, and Sheenree was also pining away with love, he proposed to his daughter that her lover, being of common birth, must accomplish a task such as no man may be able to do. Only then, might he be recommended to his favour.
The task which he suggested was that Sheenree should ask her lover to dig a canal in the rocky land among the hills. The canal must be six lances in width and three lances deep and forty miles long!
The princess had to convey her father’s decision to Furhad, who forthwith shouldered his spade and started off to the hills to commence the gigantic task. He worked hard and broke the stones for years. He would start his work early in the morning when it was yet dark and never ceased from his labours till, owing to darkness, no man could see one yard on each side.
Sheenree secretly visited him and watched the hard-working Furhad sleeping with his taysha (spade) under his head, his body stretched on the bed of stones. She noticed with all the pride of a lover that he cut her figure in the rocks every six yards and she would sigh and return home without his knowing.
Furhad worked for years and cut his canal; all was in readiness but his task was not yet finished, for he had to dig a well in the rocky beds of the mountains and sprout a fountain from which the canal should receive its supply.
Furhad was half-way through, and would probably have completed his task, when the king consulted his courtiers and sought their advice. His artifice had failed. Furhad had not perished in the attempt, and if all the conditions were fulfilled as they promised to be soon, his daughter must go to him in marriage. The viziers suggested that an old woman should be sent to Furhad to tell him that Sheenree was dead; then, perhaps, Furhad would become disheartened and leave off the work.
It was an ignoble trick, but it promised success and the king agreed to try it. So an old woman went to Furhad and wept and cried till words choked her; the stone-cutter asked her the cause of her bereavement.
‘I weep for a deceased,’ she said, ‘and for you.’
‘For a deceased and for me?’ asked the man in surprise. ‘And how do you explain it?’
‘Well, my brave man,’ said the pretender, ‘you have worked so well, and for such a long time too, but you have laboured in vain, for the object of you devotion is dead!’
‘What!’ cried the bewildered man, ‘Sheenree dead?’
Such was his grief that he cut his head with the sharp spade and died under the carved image of his beloved. The only liquid that streamed into his canal was his own blood.
When Sheenree heard this, she fled in great sorrow to the mountains where lay her wronged lover; it is said that she, inflicted a wound in her own head at the precise spot where Furhad had struck himself, and with the same sharp edge of the spade which was stained with her lover’s blood. No water ever flows into that canal. Here, two lovers are entombed in one and the same grave.

  • acquaint – make known
  • artifice – clever plan or trick
  • aspire – have ambition or strong desire
  • bereavement – sorrow, loss suffered he death of a person
  • bewildered – utterly confused
  • courtiers – officers, advisers
  • deceased- a dead person
  • disheartened – lose Courage
  • entombed – buried
  • forthwith – at once
  • gigantic- enormous
  • ignoble – mean, shameful
  • indignant – angry
  • inflicted – struck
  • in vain – without success
  • lances – long, spear-like weapons
  • mean – poor, of low position
  • of royal blood – born in a royal family
  • pining away – wasting away, longing eagerly
  • sentiment – tender feeling

viziers – ministers

About the story
The story of Sheenree and Furhad in this section is a folk-tale told by the storytellers of Afghanistan. In the mountainous villages of Afghanistan, this is one of the many stories about heroes related around evening fires.
The roots of the tale
Sheenree and Furhad’s story has its origins in the ancient legends of Persia. Firdausi used many of these legends in his Shahnarna. Another Persian poet, Nizami of Ganja, also used these heroic tales in his works. One of the stories he composed was called Khusrau and Shirin. This romantic tale is about a Sassanian king, Khusrau, and a beautiful Armenian princess named Shirin. In Nizami’s story, a stone-cutter called Farhad falls in love with the princess Shirin.
From one land to another
There are many similarities between Nizami’s story and the Afghani folk-tale. In both stories, for example, we find the king testing the hero’s love by asking him to carve a canal or a road through a mountain. However, there are also important differences between the two tales. The princess dies with Furhad in the folk-tale, but in Nizami’s story, she eventually marries Khusrau, the king. The Afghani folk-tale has been adapted by the storytellers to reflect the culture of the mountain villages.
Studying the story
The folk-tale is a romance about two individuals who are in love with one another. However it is difficult for them to marry because of their very different positions. Sheenree is a noble princess and of royal blood, while Furhad is a common man.
In the past, the difference between a princess and a stone-cutter was almost like that between a goddess and an ordinary person. Nothing could bring the two together. For a princess to marry a stone-cutter was to question the very order of things.
Love as a challenging force
However, in writings on romance, love becomes a force that challenges the positions people occupy. When a princess is made to fall in love with a stone-cutter in a tale, the poet is trying to bring together people from two very different groups. On one side, there are people who belong to the ruling class, and on the other, those who are peasants or common people.
A difficult dilemma
In making a stone cutter and a princess be in love, the poet has created a major dilemma. The two lovers would like to be together, but their society will not allow them to do so. How is this dilemma overcome in the story?
Being more than human
Furhad is asked to do something that is not humanly possible for an individual – to dig a canal through mountain. In other words, he is asked to prove that he is more a human, and therefore worthy of marrying someone of the status of a princess.
A tragic romance
Furhad succeeds in doing this. Yet the dilemma still remains. Whatever he does, he still remains a common stone-cutter. Can a stone-cutter be allowed to marry a princess? The only way out of this dilemma is for the two lovers to die, the romantic folk-tale therefore ends as a tragedy.
Exploring images
The romance of Furhad and Sheenree has interesting metaphors in it.
The mountain as a metaphor
Furhad is asked to cut a canal through a mountain. The mountain can stand for many things. It can represent Furhad’s high hopes and dreams of marrying the princess. It can stand for the mighty power of the king which he has to face. It can also be huge obstacle of people’s attitudes towards a royal princess marrying a commoner.
Single minded determination
Many poets used the image of a stone-cutter digging through a mountain to express the single minded determination of a person to achieve something which is nearly impossible.
The image of the stone-cutter
The stone-cutter too presents an image that can have many meanings. A stone-cutter takes a rough piece of stone and gives it shape. Furhad carves the statue of Sheenree in the mountain rock. He gives shapes to his deepest desires that lie buried within his heart within his heart.
Stone- cutting and poetry writing
The stone cutter can also stand for the poet. The sculptor carves from stone the object of his love, while the poet carves out a romance from raw material of words. The stone –cutter turns worthless stone into precious art, while the poet converts ordinary emotions into high romance.
Epic and romance
In the previous unit, we came across different forms of writing that described power. An epic such as Firdawsi’s Shahnama glorified the rule of kings and their heroic feats. Court poets composed poetry in praise of the rulers. Biographers wrote the story of emperors.
Inner feelings
The writings on romance in the age of empires were different. While the epics turned outward to adventures and conquests, romance turned inward to affection and reflection. This form of writing was concerned with love and the inner experiences and emotions of individuals.
Changes in society
The tales of romance show that the society of those times was slowly changing. People were becoming more conscious of themselves as individuals. They were also questioning the traditional relationships between groups of people. Through romance, they could challenge the divisions that existed between the ruling classes and the common people.
What place does the theme of romance in Muslim literature?
Epic     Folk-tale    Romance
TIMELINE:    12th – 13th century: Nizami of Ganja
Convert the story of Sheenree and Furhad so that it reads as a poem. What differences do you notice between the two styles of writing?
  • Why did no one dare to tell the princess about Furhad’s love for her?
  • The king could easily have killed Furhad. Why did he choose instead to give him a task to complete?

What are some of the things that the canal in the story can stand for? Why did Furhad and Sheenree have to die? Can you think of another ending that would have allowed them to marry and live together?

Explore other tales of romance from the past, such as those of Yusuf and Zuleikha, Layla ánd Majnun, Heer and Ranjha, and Romeo and Juliet. Compare the similarities and differences between these stories.
Tales of romance are really about relations between groups of people, rather than individuals. To what extent do you agree with this view?
All romance tales or novels are the same. They all say the same things about love using different words Think of arguments for and against this claim.
The writings on romance in the age of empires turned inward to affection and reflection. This form of writing was concerned with love and the inner experiences and emotions of individuals.
The song of love
The literature of romance does not belong to any one period or culture in Muslim history. Poets and writers of different lands have always composed works on the subject of love. Here is a traditional poem from Malaysia that expresses the range and depth of feelings that arise with the experience of love.
The song of the night owl
Please listen my lord to this account,
Written by myself, a lowly merchant,
An awkward composition, one full of errors,
My knowledge of the world is yet insufficient.

It was on a night, very gloomy,
I put down this syair about a bird,
One whose suffering was already great,
One near to insanity, anxious in all its ways.

The bird, a night owl, yearning for love,
Full of mixed emotions, its heart in pain,
As if pierced by a carved bamboo blade;
The sound of thunder, a soft rumbling could be heard.

In a voice of sadness and of longing the owl cried out,
Oh moon, my love, arise,
I am depressed, my thoughts are uncertain,
And the moon arose slowly, behind a curtain of clouds ..
And when the moon was by clouds enveloped,
It was then the night owl flew,
Questioning each and every bird,
Oh this night owl, why is it so depressed? …
The branches moved as if they too were anxious and, restless,.
The owl was pushed back by the wind,.
Its melancholic heart now even more sad,
Its heart a toy in a new box not sought after

Upon a limb the night owl perched,
And could itself bear a sobbing sound……
The moaning of the peladu bird,
Stirring within him thoughts of the moon in its royal bed.
Oh my love you do not know,
How your changing light causes me despair,
If you can show me no pity,
I will fall only deeper into the well of loneliness.
The pregnant moon as if pushed by the wind, moved slowly across the ocean,
The branches of the djitun bending and rising, bending and rising,
Answering each other continuously,
The restlessness of the branches, a mirror of the night owl’s emotions.
To and fro the night, owl flew;
beneath the moon, floating in its radiance,
Gazing upward with fearful eyes,
the fear itself slipping into the night owl’s heart.
Completely exhausted in strength and feelings,
night owl alighted in the banyan tree,
with soul pained and heart destroyed,
cursed by the moon in its royal bed…….
The night owl mourned,
its pain insufferable,
Feeling wholly crushed
By the moon and its brilliance….
From afar the night owl stared,
A soul so weary,
In need of God’s help,
Could God satiate his needs … to Him he would go.
When will the night owl’s love be requited,
For how long will he sit perched in the banyan,
Onto the owl the moon’s spell silently drifts,
Its radiance crazing the bird’s emotions.

The stars were like a basket of diamonds,
And the moon with its purity and brilliance,
Rested silently across the land,
The loving owl watching with extraordinary apprehensiveness…
The sadness of the night owl is indescribable,
Seeing that shining white star,
A full moon with such radiance and glow,
So pure, so sacred, the night owl dared not approach.
The moon floated across the northern sky.
Its luminosity unequalled;
Shining upon the grieving owl,
Destroying thither its grieving heart.
Over the oceans water the stars arose,
And the water reflected their surfaces,
The night owl waits, continuously yearning,
And sees no reflection but waits only for fate’s promise to come.
The Western Star has already arisen;
The quiescent owl waits with a passionate heart,
There comes no answer to us entreaty,
The night owl now is willing to die.
A multitude of bright stars cover the heaven,
But only the moon has severed the night owl’s heart,
Long has the night owl waited,
Only to see its love fade as the time passes by.
Toward the daybreak the sun’s rays become distinguishable,
And the sun as it rises sends forth a muted light,
The sound of pigeons and the wood cock can now be heard,
Causing restlessness in all those still sleeping.
Though morning the moon still hangs in the sky,
The night owl cries out, its voice reaching wide,
Its voice rejoined by the peacock in the valley,
And by the cricket from its burrow.
From the many birds, a discontinuity of sounds,
Each path alive with the tumult,
From every corner the night birds cry their last,
And the downcast owl perches alone on its branch.
Calling to its brother the two owls soar,
The night owl, the younger, in pace with the other,
With colored plumage and patient demeanor;
Flying toward the amber mountain.
  • alighted – descended and settled
  • amber – honey-yellow colour
  • apprehensiveness – anxiety
  • awkward composition – poor writing
  • bamboo – hollow stem or stick
  • demeanor – behaviour
  • depressed– sad, gloomy
  • distinguishable – clear, visible
  • downcast – sad
  • entreaty – earnest request, plea
  • exhausted – tired out, used up
  • insanity – madness
  • insufferable – unable to bear
  • limb – large tree branch
  • luminosity – light, brightness
  • melancholic – having sad thoughts
  • muted – lacking in intensity
  • plumage – a bird’s feathers
  • Quiescent – silent, still
  • rejoined – answered, replied
  • requited – returned, rewarded, repaid
  • satiate – gratify, fulfill
  • severed – divided
  • syair – poem
  • tumult – loud noise
  • weary – extremely tired
  • yearning – longing greatly 
About the poem
‘The song of the night owl’ is a poem from traditional Malay literature. It was written by an unknown author in the middle of the nineteenth century. The verses take the form of a quatrain, a poem in which each stanza is made up of four lines.
The owl and the moon
The poem is about an owl. It is not about an ordinary owl, but one that is in love with the moon. In Malay poetry, the owl stands for a true but unhappy lover. It carries in its heart very high hopes that cannot be met.
The moon is a favourite subject of poets, for it features in countless poems. It is often presented as a symbol of beauty and grace. Poets also draw attention to its changing nature, because it waxes and wanes.
An allegory about love
The poem is similar in some ways to the story of Sheenree and Furrhad. It is an allegory about a young man, from a not very wealthy family, who loves a lady of a much higher position. The owl in the poem stands for the young man, while the moon represents the lady.
Mystical teachings
The poem also has Sufi teachings in it. The owl is awake at night and sleeps during the daytime. It. has the ability to fly and see things in the dark. The owl stands for the true believer who prefers spiritual to physical sight. In the same way as the owl gazes at the moon at night, the believer meditates on the inner light of God.
Studying the poem
The poem is about the relationship between the owl and the moon. It is set at night, when most living creatures are asleep.
A creature of the earth and sky
The owl is a creature of the earth but also of the sky. The moon resides high in the sky. The owl loves the moon and wishes to be one with it. But no matter how it flies, it can never come close the moon. The moon is beyond reach.
A heavenly body that comes and goes
The moon is also indifferent to bird’s feelings, for it comes and goes. Its light changes and is not constant. The light of the full moon overwhelms the sky with its brilliance. But at other times, the moonlight fades until it cannot be seen at all. The moon also hides behind the clouds at times, so while it is there in the sky, it cannot be seen by the earth-bound creatures.
Beyond reach
The owl, on the other hand, is awake every night. It seeks the moon all the time. Sometimes it sees the moon, and sometimes it does not. Yet it knows the moon is always there. When it is the night of the full moon, the owl is overcome by its ‘radiance and glow, so pure, so sacred’. But it can never know whether the moon loves it or not for it can never reach the moon.
Exploring the emotions of love
‘The song of the night owl’ is a poem about the emotions the owl experiences for the moon.
Intense longing
At the beginning of the poem, we meet the owl on a dark and gloomy night. The owl’s heart is not at ease. It is filled with suffering, as if it had been pierced by a bamboo blade. The owl can not see the moon and is filled with intense yearning for it. It longs for the moon to appear.
A restless heart
The moon rises, only to be covered by the clouds. The owl becomes even sadder, for its love is in the sky but it cannot see it. The owl’s heart becomes restless. It feels that the moon is without pity, for it sees how terribly lonely the owl is.
Enchanted by moonlight
When the moon comes out from behind the clouds, the owl is wholly enchanted by its brilliance. It experiences fear as it gazes up. It knows it does not have the strength to fly up to the moon. It is drowned with grief and feels helpless as it thirsts for the moon.
Broken hope
In the last part of the poem, the owl waits with hope and expectation. But the moon does not reply. As it waits, the light of the moon begins to fade. Only too soon it is dawn and the moon can barely be seen. It is time, too, for the owl to go, its heart split by deep disappointment.
The longing of the human heart
Love is a subject that poets have explored without ever finding an end to it. Love is an experience that gives rise to a wide range of feelings in the human heart. The poetry of love explores these emotions in all their many forms.
Inner emotions
‘The song of the night owl’ is about the inner emotions that arise when a lover is separated from his beloved. The owl experiences all kinds of feelings as it waits for the moon, sees it in the sky, and then watches its light fade. Its emotions swing from deep longing to hope and then back to despair. It is not in control of itself, for its entire life and being are turned towards the moon.
Separation and longing
The theme of separation and longing can be found in many works of romance. In some stories, the lovers lose their minds and even invite death when their dreams of meeting their beloved are not met. The story of Sheenree and Furhad is a good example of tragic romance.
Lovers and beloveds in many forms
In the poem about the night owl, the lover takes the form of a bird, while the beloved is a heavenly body in the sky. In other poems, the lover and the beloved can take all kinds of forms. They can be animal, human or divine. The poems may often be about the love of two human beings.
In religious works, the beloved takes on the form of God or the Prophet. In the Shia tradition, the beloved may be the Imam, while Sufis may give this role to their pir or murshid (spiritual guide). In the next section, we explore some examples on the theme of love from the religious literature of Muslim communities.
How is the theme of love reflected in traditional poetry?

Allegory    Stanza        Quatrain

Compose a poem on the theme of love in which the beloved and the lover are symbols from nature. For example you could refer to the love of a moth for the candle or that of a nightingale for the rose. Try to capture different shades of emotions in your poem.
  • Compare the poem of the owl with Furhad’s tale. In what ways is the owl like Furhad? To what extent can the moon be compared with Sheenree?
  • Why do you think the poet chose the owl and the moon as images in his poem? How do they allow for the poem to be read with different meanings?

Expand your reading of poetry by exploring the works of different poets both modem and from the past. Focus on the theme of love and compare the variety of approaches and styles used by the poets.
Poetry is the best means of expressing the emotions of love. How far do you agree with this view?
If you were a judge in a poetry competition how would you decide whether one poem is better than another?
The poetry of love explores the feeling of human heart in all its many forms. The themes of union and separation are reflected in many works of romance
The poetry of devotion
In the Shia Ismaili tradition, there are many qasidas, manqabats, and other forms of poetry which express the love of a devotee for God, Prophet Muhammad and the Imams. Here are three examples of ginans which are on the theme of love.
The towering walls
The towering walls,
The flowing stream beneath,
I’m a fish in the stream.
Come, Lord, come,
come to the rescue.
For lack of your sight,
I’m all distraught.
Beloved, come home,
Lord, come to this devotee
who neglected his devotions.
Lord, show yourself,
Show your beauteous face.

A roomful of sandalwood..
Splendidly carved are the doors, locked with locks of love.
Come, Lord, come,
come and undo the locks.
Cast into the cage of family, relations
Few are those who know
The anguish in my being.
Come, Lord, come,
come to quench this raging fever.
Do not harbor
This much wrath, my Lord.
Lord, do show yourself.
Pir Hasanshah beseeches you:

          Come, Lord, come,
          come to the rescue,

Show your beauteous face
Show your beauteous face, my Lord, I am your maid-servant
Attending on you,
With joined hands pleading:
At every breath be close to me, my Lord.
At every breath
be present in my heart.
be not aloof in the space,
my Lord, of a single breath.
Aloof you are not, my Lord,
I do not think of you as aloof.
Why here you are speaking to me, in the heart of my heart.
My Lord, only you know the bound of your bounds.
You are my great protector, my Lord….
When the Immaculate Lord,
comes to the groom,
He will be the consort
Of the universal bride.

On that day, my Lord,
Summon me by your side.
Be sure my Lord,
To take my hand in yours
Says, Imam Begum listen my Lord,
This much, just this much,
Do I ask of you, my Lord.
Now I am in love with you
Now I am in love with you, my Lord,
My heart is stricken now
with love for you.
Let eye look into eye,
Now that I am in love, now,
with you, my Lord.
Lift the veil; let us come
Face to face.
Show your gently smiling face, my Lord,
Now, now that I am in love with you, my Lord.
Grant me the gift,
That gift of your sight,
Now that I am in love,
That I am in love with you, my Lord.
Don’t sulk on me, beloved,
Keep company with me,
Now that I am in love with you, my Lord.
This, your forever, will go
Wherever you go.
Let there be friendship in your heart,
Now that I am,
that I am in love with you, my Lord.
Listen, O handsome one,
Oh, you reticent one!
Let there be mercy in your heart,
Now that I am in love with you, my Lord.
For your secret I am mad, my Lord.
Let it be!
Let reason be overcome by love!
Now that I am in love with you, my Lord.
When the face was seen
There was joy at heart.
Pir Shams told the tale:
Now I am in love with you, my Lord,
My heart is stricken now
with love for you.
  • aloof- distant, apart
  • beauteous- beautiful
  • beseeches – pleads, asks earnestly for
  • bound – limit, end
  • consort- husband
  • distraught – tilled with worry or fear
  • groom- bride groom
  • harbour- keep in one’s heart
  • immaculate – pure
  • reticent – quiet, shy, reluctant to speak
  • sandalwood – perfume or incense from the scented wood of a tree
  • stricken – overcome
  • sulk – refuse to speak from anger
  • wrath – anger 
  • universalreferring to all
About the ginans

The ginans are hymns or religious lyrics of the Indian Ismaili community. The term ‘ginan’ comes from a Sanskrit word ‘jnan’ that means ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’. The number of ginans that have been composed is estimated to be several hundred. Some are of a very short length, consisting of as few as four verses, while the long ones are made up of several hundred verses.

Works reflecting many languages

The ginans use words from several languages, such as Sanskrit, Gujarati, Punjabi, Sindhi, Arabic and Persian. The ginans were originally recited orally, but later came to be written down in a special script called Khojki.

Pirs and saiyads

In the Ismaili tradition, the ginans are believed to have been composed by pirs. Pir Shams was one of these pirs who is said to have lived in Multan, in the country now known to us as Pakistan. Many of the ginans mention Pir Sadardin and Pir Hasan Kabirdin as their composers, in addition to Pir Shams.

Some of the ginans were also composed by saiyads. Imam-Begum, who falls in this category, lived in or near Bombay in the nineteenth century. She was a skilled player of a musical instrument called sarangi (a type of fiddle) and she sang her hymns while playing this instrument.

The theme of divine love

The contents of the ginans refer to a wide range of subjects. Some are based on myths and religious stories. Other teach important moral lessons. Yet others refer to religious festivals and ceremonies. In this section, we have selected three ginans which arc on the experience of divine love and devotion.

The towering walls

In the song of the night owl’, we learned about the theme of separation that can be found in works of romance. We find this theme reflected in the first ginan ‘The towering walls’.

The fish trapped in the stream

In the previous poem, the main character was an owl. The ginan begins by using the image of a fish. Imagine being a fish in a stream that is surrounded by lofty walls. Just as the owl was separated from the moon by a great distance, the fish is separated from its beloved by huge obstacles that cannot be overcome. The fish lives in the water. If it comes out of the water, it would surely die. Even if it somehow managed to live, it would have to scale the towering walls near the stream. The fish is trapped in the stream, yet it yearns to meet its, beloved.

The longing of a devotee

Pir Hasanshah uses the image of the fish in the stream to convey separation that a devotee feels from his Lord. The devotee yearns for his Lord and longs to meet him.

A room filled with the scent of sandalwood

Since the fish cannot escape from the water, it calls its beloved to rescue it. Similarly, the devotee does not have the power to reach his Lord. The devotee therefore makes his heart into a home for beloved and invites the Lord to him.

The heart of the devotee is like room filled with the scent of sandalwood. This ‘room’ is ‘locked with locks of love’. The devotee pleads to his Lord to visit him.

Show your beauteous face

The night owl and the fish grieve about their separation from their beloveds. In many poems, lyrics and hymns, we also find the theme of closeness between the lover and the beloved.

A sense of closeness

Show your beauteous face’ is a ginan in which Imam Begum brings together the themes of separation and union. The devotee senses her separation from his Lord and invites him to be close to her. But the devotee does not ask for closeness in the way that we normally understand that term. It is an inner closeness through which the devotee can feel the presence of the Lord in her heart in every breath.

Heart of my heart

In the third verse of the ginan, the sense of separation vanishes. The vast distance between the lover and the beloved no longer exists. The devotee is convinced that the lord is present inside the ‘heart of my heart’, speaking to her.

The devotee no longer feels a sense of anguish at being separated from his Lord. Rather we find in the poem a sense of closeness and friendship.

The bride and the groom

Imam begum uses the image of a maid servant and a bride to convey how she feels towards her Lord. The Lord becomes her master and her protector. On the Day of Judgment, the devotee asks the Lord for that closeness again whereby he is by her side, holding her hand.

Now I am in love with you

In the third ginan, we find another theme – that of intimacy. The devotee no longer feels a sense of anguish at being separated from his Lord. Rather we find in the poem a sense of closeness and friendship.

Let eye took into eye

In the first three verses of the ginan, the devotee invites the Lord to come ‘face to face’, and to let ‘eye look into eye’. The devotee wishes for nothing more than to have a sight of the ‘gently smiling face’ of the Lord.

In the verses that follow, the devotee pleads to the Lord for his company and friendship. He feels that the Lord is sulking on him and being shy and reserved.

Madly in love

The final two verses reveal to us the deep feelings that the devotee experiences for the Lord. The devotee is madly in love with the Lord and does not wish to listen to reason. His heart is overcome with love for the Lord, and only feels joy when he sees the face of the Lord.

In the three ginans we have studied here, we find a strong thirst on the part of the devotee to meet the Lord. In the next section, we explore further this theme of the quest.


How is the theme of love reflected in religious poetry?

 hymn  lyric

 Compose a poem that reflects the love of a devotee for God. Use in your poem images, metaphors and other symbols from the environment around.

  • Compare the three ginans closely. What are some features common to all of them? What are some aspects that are different?
  • What kind of relationship exists between the devotee and the Lord in the first ginan? Does this relationship change in the second and third ginans?

What kinds of feelings are expressed by the devotee in the ginans? Compare these feelings with those in the poem about the owl and the moon. What do you find?

Examine poems on the theme of love from other religions and traditions. What are some of the similarities and differences you notice between these types of poems?
Poetry cannot be translated from one language into another. Discuss the arguments for and against this \view.
To what extent can people of different cultures understand one another’s literature?
In the Shia Ismaili tradition, the ginans are one type of religious literature in which the theme of divine love can be found.
The story of the quest
The longing and yearning of the lover to meet the beloved, or the devotee to meet the Lord, is also reflected in the literature of the quest. In these types of works, the main characters set out on a long search, seeking to reach a hidden or remote goal or destination. In their quest, they undergo various trials. Below is a story of the quest that has become recognised as a classic in Muslim literature.
The conference of the birds
The world’s birds gathered for their conference
And said: ‘Our constitution makes no sense.
All nations in the world require a king;
How is it we alone have no such thing?
Only a kingdom can be justly run;
We need a king and must inquire for one.’

They argued how to set about their quest.
The hoopoe fluttered forward
‘I know our king but how can I alone
Endure the journey to His distant throne?
Join me, and when we at last end our quest
Our king will greet you as His honoured guest …

‘We have a king; beyond Kaf’s mountain peak
The Simurgh lives, the sovereign whom you seek,
And He is always near to us, though we
Live far from His transcendent majesty.
A hundred thousand veils of dark and light
Withdraw His presence from our mortal sight,
And in both worlds no being shares the throne
That marks the Simurgh’s power and His alone

‘Do not imagine the Way is short;
Vast seas and deserts lie before His court
Consider carefully before you
The journey asks of you a lion’s heart.
The road is long, the sea is deep one flies
First buffeted by joy and then by sighs;
If you desire this quest, give up your soul.
And make our sovereign’s court your only goal.
‘It was in China, late one moonless night,
The Simurgh first appeared to mortal sight He let a feather float down through the air,
And rumours of its fame spread everywhere
It is a sign of Him, and in each heart
There lies this feather’s hidden counterpart.
But since no words suffice, what use are mine
To represent or to describe this sign?
Whoever wishes to explore the Way,
Let him set out what more is there to say?’

The hoopoe finished, and at once the birds
Effusively responded to his words.
All praised the splendour of their distant king;
All rose impatient to be on the wing;
But when they pondered on the journey’s length,
They hesitated; their ambitious strength
Dissolved; each bird, according to his kind,
Felt flattered but reluctantly declined …

All made excuses floods of foolish words
Flowed from these babbling, rumour-loving birds

How could they gain the Simurgh?
Such a goal belongs to those who discipline the soul.

The hoopoe counselled them …
‘If petty problems keep you back or none How will you seek the treasures of the sun?
In drops you lose yourselves, yet you must dive
Through untold fathoms and remain alive.
This is no journey for the indolent Our quest is Truth itself, not just its scent!’
When they understood the hoopoe’s words,
A clamour of complaint rose from the birds:
‘Although we recognise you as our guide,
You must accept – it cannot be denied –
We are a wretched, flimsy crew at best,
And lack the bare essentials for this quest.
Our feathers and our wings, our bodies’ strength
Are quite unequal to the journeys length;
For one of us to reach the Simurgh’s throne
Would be miraculous, a thing unknown.
At least say what relationship obtains
Between His might and ours; who can take pains
To search for mysteries when he is blind’?

The hoopoe answered them:
‘When long ago the Simurgh first appeared –
His face like sunlight when the clouds have cleared –
He cast unnumbered shadows on the earth,
On each one fixed his eyes, and each gave birth.
Thus we were born; the birds of every land
Are still his shadows
He makes a mirror in our hearts – look there
To see Him, search your hearts with anxious care.’

They heard the tale; the birds were all on fire …
They set out on the Way, a noble deed!
Hardly had they begun when they agreed
To call a halt: ‘A leader’s what we need,’
‘We need a judge of rare ability
To lead us over danger’s spacious sea;
Whatever he commands along the Way,
We must, without recalcitrance, obey,
Until we leave this plain of sin and pride
And gain Kaf’s distant peak
‘But winch o[ us is worthy or this trust’?…’
The lots were chosen, and the hoopoe won,
A lucky verdict that pleased everyone.
He was their leader; they would sacrifice
Their lives if he demanded such a price ..

The hoopoe, as their chief, was hailed and crowned –
Huge flocks of birds in homage gathered round;
A hundred thousand birds assembled there,
Making a monstrous shadow in the air.

The throng set out …
They clung together in a huddling crowd,
Drew in their heads and wings and wailed aloud
A melancholy, weak, faint-hearted song –
Their burdens were too great, the way too long!
How featureless the view before their eyes,
An emptiness where they could recognise
No marks of good or ill – a silence where
The soul knew neither hope nor blank despair …

Tue trembling birds stared out across the plain;
The road seemed endless as their endless pain.
But in the hoopoe’s heart new confidence
Transported him above the firmaments –
The sands could not alarm him nor the high
Harsh sun at noon, the peacock of the sky.
What other bird, throughout the world, could bear
The troubles of the Way and all its care?

The frightened flock drew nearer to their guide.
‘You know the perils of the Way,’ they cried …
‘you know
Exactly where it’s safe and right to go;
You’ve seen the ups and downs of this strange
It is our wish that as our guide you say
How we should act before the king we seek;
And more, as we are ignorant and weak,
That you should solve the problems in our hearts …
  • buffeted – struck or knocked repeatedly
  • clamour- loud shouting
  • constitution – rules of government
  • counseled – advised, guided
  • counterpart – a thing exactly like another
  • clamour – loud noise
  • declined – refused
  • detachment- separation
  • effusively – with great enthusiasm
  • endure – undergo, face
  • fathom – a measure of the depth of water (one fathom equals six feet)
  • flimsy – weak, fragile
  • hailed – acclaimed
  • halt – stop
  • homage – respect
  • huddling – crowding together
  • indolent – lazy
  • melancholy – sadness
  • modal – of living beings, limited
  • perils – dangers
  • pondered- thought about, considered
  • quest – search
  • recalcitrance – disobedience
  • reluctantly – unwillingly
  • Sirnurgh – king of the birds
  • sovereign – head of a state, monarch
  • spacious – vast, wide
  • suffice -The enough
  • throng – crowd
  • transcendent – surpassing, higher than

verdict – result, outcome

One of the birds let out a helpless squeak:
‘I can’t go on this journey, I’m too weak.
Dear guide, I know I can’t fly any more;
I’ve never tried a feat like this before.
This valley’s endless; dangers lie ahead;
The first time that we rest I’ll drop down dead
What chance have timid souls? What chance have
I? If I set out it’s certain I shall die!

The hoopoe said: ‘Your heart’s congealed like ice;
When will you free yourself from cowardice?
Since you have such a short time to live here,
What difference does it make? What should you
fear? …

Another bird spoke next: ‘Dear hoopoe, say
What will sustain my heart along the Way –
To travel as I should I need your aid;
If you can help me I’ll be less afraid …

The hoopoe said: ‘Trust Him, and while you live,
Avoid whosoever seems too talkative.
With Him you will rejoice – when He is there
The saddest soul is freed from every care;
What is His equal? Say that nothing is,
Then happiness is yours, and you arc His.’
Another bird said: ‘Leader of my soul,
What shall I ask for if I reach our goal?
His light will fill the world, but I’m not sure
What special gift I should be looking for –
I’ll ask Him for whatever you suggest.’

The hoopoe said: ‘Poor fool, make one request;
Seek only Him – of all things He is best;
If you’re aware of Him, in all the earth
What could you wish for of a eater worth? … 

 Another bird said: ‘Hoopoe, you can find
The way from here, but we are almost blind –
The path seems full of terrors and despair.
Dear hoopoe, how much further till we’re there?’
‘Before we reach our goal,’ the hoopoe said, 
 ‘The journey’s seven valleys lie ahead; 
 How far this is the world has never learned, 
 For no one who has gone there has returned …
‘The first stage is the Valley of the Quest;
Then Love’s wide valley is our second test;
The third is Insight into Mystery,
The fourth Detachment and Serenity –
The fifth is Unity; the sixth is Awe,
A deep Bewilderment unknown before,
The seventh Poverty and Nothingness –
And there you are suspended, motionless,
Till you are drawn – the impulse is not yours –
A drop absorbed in seas that have no shores.’
The hoopoe paused, and when the group had heard 
 His discourse, trembling fear filled every bird 
They travelled on for year, a lifetime passed
Before the longed-for goal was reached at last.
What happened as they flew I cannot say …
Of every thousand there remained but one.
Of many who set out no trace was found.

Some deep within the ocean’s depths were
Some died on mountain-tops; some died of heat;
Some flew too near the sun in their conceit …
Some met their death between the lion’s claws,
And some were ripped to death by monster’s jaws;
Some died of thirst; some hunger sent insane …
Some became weak and could no longer fly …
Not in every thousand souls arrived –
In every hundred thousand one survived.

A world of birds set out, and there remained
But thirty when the promised goal was gained.
Thirty exhausted, wretched, broken things,
With hopeless hearts and tattered, trailing wings
Who saw that nameless Glory …
Whose solitary flame each moment turns
A hundred worlds to nothingness and burns
With power a hundred thousand times more bright
Than sun and stars and every natural light …
… they begin to findA new life flow towards them from that bright
Celestial and ever-living Light –
Their souls rose free of all they’d been before;
There in the Simurgh’s radiant face they saw
Themselves, the Simurgh of the World – with awe
They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simurgh and the journey’s end.
They see the Simurgh – at themselves they stare,
And see a second Simurgh standing there;
They look at both and see the two are one,
That this is that, that this, the goal is won.
They ask (but inwardly; they make no sound) … how is it true
That ‘we’ is not distinguishable here from ‘you’? 

And silently their shining Lord’ replies:
‘I am a mirror set before your eyes,
And all who come before my splendour see
Themselves, their own unique reality;
You came as thirty birds and therefore saw
These selfsame thirty birds, not less nor more;
If you had come as forty fifty – here
An answering forty, fifty, would appear;’
“Though you have struggled, wandered, travelled far,
It is yourselves you see and what you are.’ … 

Though you traversed the Valleys’ depths and fought
With all the dangers that the journey brought,
The journey was in Me, the deeds were Mine –
You slept secure in Being’s inmost shrine …’
Then, as they listened to the Simurgh’s words.
A trembling dissolution filled the birds –
The substance of their being was undone,
And they were lost like shade before sun;
Neither the pilgrims nor the guide remained.
The Simurgh ceased to speak, and silence reigned
  • awe – fearer wonder
  • bewilderment – utter confusion
  • celestial – heavenly, divine
  • comprehend – understand
  • congealed- turned solid
  • detachment – indifference, aloofness
  • discourse – speech
  • dissolution – end, disappearance
  • distinguishable – different from
  • exhausted – tired, without any strength
  • feat – a great act
  • insane – mad
  • reigned – ruled
  • satiate – gratify, fulfill
  • secure – safe from danger
  • selfsame – the very same
  • serenity – calm, peace
  • shrine – place of worship
  • solitary – single, alone
  • splendour- magnificence, grandeur
  • tattered- torn in many places
  • timid – easily frightened
  • traversed – travelled. crossed
  • wretched – unhappy, miserable 
About the author

The Conference of the Birds was written by Farid al-Din Attar, a Persian poet and mystic. Attar was born in the twelfth century in Nishapur, Northeastern Iran, and died in the thirteenth century. 

Attar was a seller of perfumes and medicine who worked in a daru-khana, a kind of drug-store or a chemist’s shop. It was here that he composed his poems.

As a young boy; Attar attended the religious college in Mashhad, the largest town in north-eastern Iran and an important centre of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims. Later he travelled to Egypt, Damascus, Mecca, Turkestan and India.
In search of wisdom
In Attar’s rime, it was normal for scholars to travel from place to place in search of knowledge. These wandering scholars were also keen to find patrons who would support their learning. Attar travelled widely because he was more interested in gaining wisdom rather than the favour of rulers. He did not have too high an opinion of rulers, and preferred not to have anything to do with them.
A sad ending
After his travels were over, Attar settled once again in his home town of Nishapur. Here, he wrote several works, including The Conference of the Birds. Later on, he was attacked by the rulers for his writings, his property was looted, and he was banished from Nishapur.
About the story
The Conference of the Birds is a poem based on a story about a group of birds. In the tale, the birds of the world all gather together to seek their king. One of the birds, Hoopoe, tells them that they have a king by the name of Simurgh, but he lives very far away
The birds and their excuses
The birds are keen to meet their king, but when they discover that the journey is full of dangers, they start making excuses. In the main story, we find that the duck does not want to leave its stream, the partridge cannot tear itself away from its precious gems, and the finch is too timid to face the Simurgh.
Hoopoe answers each of them by telling them anecdotes. He tries to convince them that the reward they will get will be far greater than the dangers they will face.
Hoopoe the guide
Eventually the birds set off, but soon they realise they need a guide. They agree for Hoopoe to be their leader, a bird who knows more about the Simurgh and the way to reach him than any of them.
The birds start asking him questions about the Simurgh and the journey. Once again, Hoopoe answers them with instructive anecdotes. He makes them aware of their own inner weaknesses and how to overcome them. He also describes the seven valleys they will have to cross before they can reach the Simurgh.
The thirty survivors
Thousands of birds finally set off, and after a long and dangerous journey, only thirty birds survive. At last, they arrive at the court of the Simurgh. To their astonishment, they find that the Simurgh is none other than themselves, the thirty (si) birds (murgh).
Examining the poem
A quest is a search for someone or something. All stories about a quest share some common features. First they must have one or more characters who are seekers. Then, there must be a goal they want to achieve. This goal may be, for example, a place, an object, an animal or a person.
Finally there is the journey which must undertake to reach their goal. The journey may take many forms. It could be a journey across different lands; it could involve time travel or it could be an inner journey of the self through different states of mind.
The quest of the birds
In Tie Conference of the Birds, the seekers are the birds, their goal is Simurgh, and they have to travel through seven valleys to reach him. The birds are also accompanied by a guide, in the form of Hoopoe, who shows them way. The guide is another figure that we find in many stories of the quest.
Overcoming weaknesses
Seekers who set off on a quest face various trials. They must overcome obstacles of the outside world, but they must also be strong enough to face their own inner weaknesses. In the Conference, the birds have to overcome their own doubts, fears and concerns before they can reach the Simurgh. They also have to face the trials of the seven valleys.
A journey of sell-discovery
Quest stories have different endings. Usually, only the strongest survive and reach the destination. Those who remain find their goal. At the same time, they also discover themselves. After a long and dangerous journey, they now know much more about themselves than they did before. In the Conference, the ending is about self-discovery: the thirty birds discover that the Simurgh is none other than themselves,
Exploring the allegory
We can read The Conference of the Birds and enjoy it as an animal fable. When we read it in this manner, it becomes a tale of a group of birds in quest of their king.
An allegory with different meanings
Attar’s story, however, has the ability to convey different meanings to its readers. It is not simply a fable with a clear moral. It is an allegory, a form of writing in which a story has literal and deeper meanings.
In the Conference, the literal meaning is to do with the journey of the birds. If we want to explore its deeper meanings, we have to ask what the birds, the guide, the journey and the Simurgh all stand for. These meanings will be different for different readers.
A mystical interpretation
One possible meaning of the allegory is that it is about the journey of the soul towards its Creator. Attar was a Sufi who believed in a mystical understanding of Islam. He believed that the return journey of a soul to its origin needed a guide (a murshid or pir). The true murshid could lead a disciple through all the spiritual stages to become one with Cod. Attar wrote the Conference to explain what this inner, spiritual journey meant.
Other explanations
However, the story of the birds can be interpreted in other ways too. For example, it can be an allegory about the search of a people for a perfect ruler. We know that Attar did not like the rulers in his time and thought that they were unfit to govern their subjects. The story could also be understood as dealing with the different stages through which we pass in our life.
No one meaning is more correct than the others – it all depends on the reader’s viewpoint. The power of the allegory lies in being able to convey a wide range of meanings to its readers.
How Is the theme o quest reflected in traditional Muslim literature?     
• allegory     anecdote
12th century: Farid al-Din Attar

Write an allegory that is based on the theme of quest Before you start, identify who the seekers will be, what they will be searching for, what kind of journey they will make, and what will be the outcomes of their quest.
  • Examine the questions asked by the four birds on page 110. What kinds of personalities do these birds represent? What kind of character is Hoopoe?
  • What do you think the seven valleys stand for? Of the thousands of birds that set off, why did only a few reach their goal?
  • In the story, the thirty birds found that the Simurgh was none other than themselves. What is your understanding of this ending? 

Explore other allegories based on the theme of quest. Compare, for example, the approach in Attar’s story with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
How important is an author’s explanation of an allegory he or she has written? Is it more correct than other .meanings suggested by readers?
If Altar had lived in the modem age, what kind of allegory might he have written? Why?
The literature of Muslim societies includes works that arc based on the idea of quest. Many of these works have been inspired by mystical understandings of Islam.
 Review of Unit 5

Review questions

    1.   The celebration of love

    • Who was Furhad and whom did he love?
    • What was the reaction of the icing when he heard about Furhad’s love for his daughter?
    • What task did the king set for Furhad? What did the king expect to happen?
    • How did the king prevent Furhad from completing his task?
    • How does the story of Furhad and Sheenree end?

    2.   The song of love
    • What is the poem of the night owl about?
    • Why was the owl sad and depressed when night fell?
    • What did the owl feel when he saw the moon rise?
    • How does the poet describe the moon?
    • What was the effect of the full moon on the owl?
    • What did the owl feel as morning dawned?

    3.   The poetry of devotion

    • What is the main subject of all three ginans? What are some of the similarities and differences between the three examples?
    • How is the image of a fish in a stream used in the towering walls’?
    • How is the sense of closeness between the devotee and the Lord brought out in ‘Show your beauteous face’?
    • What lines in ‘Now I am in love with you’ indicate a sense of close friendship and familiarity between the devotee and the Lord?

    4.   The story of the quest

    • What is the story of the birds about?
    • What does Hoopoe tell the birds about their king?
    • What are some of the concerns that the birds express to Hoopoe? How does Hoopoe reply to them?
    • What are some of the seven valleys the birds have to cross before they reach their goal?
    • What do the birds find in the end?
    • What are some of the possible interpretations of Farid al-Din’s allegory about the birds?
      To continue reading the last chapter of this book click on:  UNIT – 6


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